Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.40

D. J. Butterfield (ed.), Varro Varius: The Polymath of the Roman World. Cambridge Classical Journal supplementary volume 39.   Cambridge:  Cambridge Philological Society, 2015.  Pp. x, 218.  ISBN 9780956838148.  £30.00.  

Reviewed by Katharina Volk and James E. G. Zetzel, Columbia University (;

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The Roman polymath Varro has always seemed a large question mark in any account of Roman literary and cultural history. Despite the fact that more of him survives than of most writers of the Roman Republic (De re Rustica complete, nearly six of the 25 books of De lingua Latina), the range of his interests and writings was so vast, and the extant portions represent so small a fraction of his output, that it is difficult to reconstruct either what he said or what influence it had—except that we can surmise that this influence was immense. 41 books of Antiquitates, 150 Menippean Satires, 76 Logistorici, nine books of Disciplinae ... the list of his works (which Jerome helpfully supplies, also noting that he has reported scarcely half of it) goes on and on. The fragments that survive are also many, and difficult to interpret: important ones preserved by Augustine are as distorted as they are extensive.

Varro, then, is a challenge, and it is no surprise that the last serious collection of his fragments was made in the seventeenth century. Recently, however, there has been increasing interest: the present volume is the record of a conference at Cambridge in 2011; since then, there have been two panels at the APA/SCS (in one of which two of the contributors to the present volume and both of the reviewers took part), and work on various aspects of his oeuvre has been more abundant than in a long time. In addition, a number of important new editions are scheduled to appear in the next few years: Robert Rodgers's OCT of De re rustica, Joseph MacAlhany's Loeb of the collected fragments, and Wolfgang de Melo's edition of De lingua Latina with translation and commentary, to be published by OUP. All that is very welcome indeed.

Varro Varius consists of eight papers divided into three groups: "Varro on language," "Varro on Rome," and "Varro's afterlife." The chapters are preceded by David Butterfield's introduction, which provides a basic overview of Varro's oeuvre and cultural significance,1 enlivened by an amusing if tangential discussion of the Varronian origin of the Roman meme "Armenian tiger."

In the first chapter, Daniel J. Taylor revisits his earlier work on De lingua Latina,2 apparently wishing to give the impression that his view of Varro as a tidy "language scientist" is by now scholarly orthodoxy, a "new Varro." Taylor proceeds to argue, largely on the basis of one fragment, that the lost second half of the treatise was a detailed account of Stoic syllogistic applied to Latin; he also suggests that Varro's explicit tripartite division was really bipartite, reflecting the two sides of Stoic linguistics. Taylor plucks from its historical or textual context anything he can find that anticipates modern linguistic ideas; his results are as unhistorical as they are untrue. He briefly cites the important work of Baratin on syntax in Rome, but seems not to recognize that it conflicts with his own claims.3

The following chapter, by Adam Gitner, stands in sharp contrast to Taylor's history-from-hindsight. Starting from a careful analysis of the meanings of Aeolism (in general, the idea that Latin is somehow based on Greek) in modern scholarship, and an equally precise delineation of the ways in which one can speak of two languages as related to one another, Gitner discusses the views of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Quintilian before turning to detailed treatment of the complicated evidence for Varro's stance. He is able to show not only that Varro himself clearly does not believe Latin to be derived from Greek, but that Aeolism is a modern construct that has no correspondence in ancient ideas of linguistic relationships.

Giorgio Piras's chapter builds usefully on his earlier work:4 starting from a review of problems concerning the relationship of the poetic etymologies in De lingua Latina 7 to the famous statement at 5.7-9 about the four grades of etymology, he goes on to look closely at Varro's methods of poetic citation and his sources. After analyzing and comparing in particular the citations from Ennius and Plautus, Piras concludes, with good reason, that Varro borrowed from earlier scholarship in some sections of Book 7, while relying on his own research in others.

In the first chapter of the "Varro and Rome" section, Diana Spencer (currently in the process of writing a monograph on Varro) proposes reading De lingua Latina linearly, as a narrative that enacts the author's delivering to his audience the linguistic, political, and social mastery of Latin or, as Spencer calls it, "Romespeak." Of this chapter, one might observe what Spencer herself at one point says about Varro's own text: "Much ground is, at least potentially, covered" (89). Between the promising approach and not unreasonable conclusion, however, the reader is led into a morass of incomprehensibility, whose jargony non sequiturs (sample sentence: "I suggest that contemporary ancient understanding of mnemotechnics embedded narrative in the citizen-episteme," 91) make Varro's meandering opacity emerge by comparison as a model of clarity.

The theme of Roman identity continues in T. P. Wiseman's ambitious reconstruction of Varro's version of the city's foundation, which—the author argues—was unorthodox in many ways. Relying primarily on Solinus, Collectanea rerum memorabilium 1.1-33 and touching on a variety of intriguing issues (including the meaning of the puzzling phrases Roma quadrata and ad aequilibrium, the location of Romulus' hut, and the augural and astrological aspects of the foundation), Wiseman spins an engaging yarn that does, however, require the reader to take a fair number of leaps of faith. Crucially, we are asked to believe that Solinus follows Varro's account throughout—except at those points where Wiseman conveniently diagnoses digressions containing later material. Readers skeptical of these and other premises are likely to experience the occasional crisis of confidence in the course of Wiseman's diverting tale.

In a chapter written in barely idiomatic English, Yves Lehmann makes a number of sweeping ex cathedra pronouncements about Varro's philosophical work and beliefs. He reiterates claims made in earlier publications,5 notably his characterization of Varro as a highly spiritual Middle Platonist, who was "particularly inclined to metaphysical speculation on the supreme principle of things and of beings, both by temperament and training" (127). Varronian scholars of a more sober inclination may have some problems recognizing in this ardent transcendentalist the Roman pragmatist who famously put res humanae before res diuinae (Augustin. Civ. D. 6.4). Lehmann gives no indication of being familiar with most of the relevant secondary literature; his extended discussion of Varro's Antiocheanism, for example, contains no reference to the important work of T. Tarver and D. Blank.

In the first of the two chapters dedicated to Varro's "afterlife," Leofranc Holford-Strevens provides an informative if necessarily superficial overview of Varro in Aulus Gellius (including some discussion of the extent of Gellius' first-hand knowledge of Varro's works) and in a variety of late antique authors.

The final chapter is quite different from the others: as mentioned above, R. H. Rodgers is preparing a new edition of De re rustica and here provides a brief survey of the textual and editorial history, followed by close scrutiny of the textual issues in two passages (1.2.1-7, 1.11.1-12.4) framed as a discussion of the conservative (Flach) and radical (Giusta) editorial work that precedes his own. Rodgers's comments are learned, sensible, and both modest and moderate; one looks forward to his edition.

While the volume's title invokes the variety and diversity of Varro's scholarly and literary output and interests, the chapters cover only a fraction of the polymath's oeuvre: four deal with De lingua Latina and one with (the text of) De re rustica, but the Antiquitates and other antiquarian treatises, De philosophia, and the Menippean Satires make only a few cameo appearances in the remaining chapters, and other works do not appear at all. If Varro himself thus does not come across as particularly uarius, the approaches and interpretations put forth by the volume's authors are certainly remarkable for their wide divergence, with confident claims for the true identity of Varro facing off across the chapter boundaries (these tensions are largely left implicit—there is next to no cross- referencing). Is the "most learned of Romans" a hard-nosed linguist adhering to modern scientific principles? A spiritualist seeker for the one true god above all earthly manifestations? A postmodern guide through the dark forest of language? Or is he—an all-too-common fate of the fragmentary author—but a blank canvas on which each reader gets to project his or her own speculations?

Although (as we hope is clear from our descriptions above) the volume contains a number of perfectly level-headed contributions, it leaves the strong impression of a field in which personal scholarly agendas lead to highly speculative and extreme theories that will be convincing to few beyond their authors. It is the editor's avowed and honorable goal to "rouse the slumbering state of Varronian studies" (15), but one very much hopes that future Varronian scholarship, once wide awake, will be able to move beyond some of what is on offer in Varro Varius. In this context, it is a hopeful sign that the author of what is by far the best chapter in the volume, Adam Gitner, is also the youngest of the contributors. Setting out not to make a spectacular single-minded claim, but to demonstrate, through careful and informed scholarship, that an earlier claim of this kind ("Varro was a radical Aeolist") is not borne out by the evidence, Gitner shows that Varro, like other ancient authors, is not in fact operating according to our ideas (e.g., of language affiliation) but his own. It will take more such nuanced and unprejudiced criticism for us to unravel how uarius Varro really was.

Table of Contents

Introduction (David Butterfield)
1. The new Varro and the structure of his De Lingua Latina (Daniel J. Taylor)
2. Varro Aeolicus: Latin's Affiliation with Greek (Adam Gitner)
3. Cum poeticis multis uerbis magis delecter quam utar: poetic citations and etymological enquiry in Varro's De lingua Latina (Giorgio Piras)
4. Varro's Romespeak: De lingua Latina (Diana Spencer)
5. Rome on the balance: Varro and the foundation legend (T. P. Wiseman)
6. Varro the Roman philosopher (Yves Lehmann)
7. Varro in Gellius and late antiquity (Leofranc Holford-Strevens)
8. A new text of De re rustica (R. H. Rodgers)


1.   See also Butterfield's helpful Oxford Bibliographies article on Varro.
2.   Declinatio: A Study of the Linguistic Theory of Marcus Terentius Varro (1974) and multiple subsequent publications.
3.   M. Baratin, La naissance de la syntaxe à Rome (1989).
4.   Varrone e i poetica verba: studio sul settimo libro del De lingua Latina (1998).
5.   See especially Varron théologien et philosophe romain (1997).

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